by Alexandra Katz
It all began with a few photographs, a tweet and a plea. Fashion designer Elise Diebel needed a photographer for her website.
Enter Brad Ogbonna. The Minnesotan ex-pat, now based out of Brooklyn, began collaborating with Diebel, a native of St. Paul and grad from the University of Minnesota’s apparel design program. It soon turned into a project the size of a city, so to speak – specifically, a neighborhood in Lagos, Nigeria called “Ikoyi,” also the name of the duo’s recently-launched joint fashion line for men and women.
We spoke to the pair about the inspiration behind their line, their collaborative process, and what Ikoyi represents.
l’étoile: How did Ikoyi come together?
Ogbonna: Almost around this time last year, I had spoke to Elise about collaborating on a project in the realm of fashion, although, the conversation at that point in time was to work on a video or a photo shoot for her line. Not long after, I came back to Minnesota for the month of December to stay with my dad who was undergoing chemotherapy. It was a good time to get away from NYC and to concentrate on what I really wanted to be doing upon my return to the East Coast. On the day after Christmas, my dad passed away, and a month later I was on my way to Nigeria for my dad’s funeral. I decided to spend a month and a half in Nigeria to hang out with my family, and to make some new friends and contacts as well. While there, I visited the shops that my aunts’ own, and I would accompany them to the markets and then to their tailors; seeing the whole process first hand was kind of my inspiration for starting my own line. I spotted so many unique fabrics, but I didn’t see any transformed into the cuts and styles that my friends or I would wear on a regular basis. I decided that when I got back to NYC I would start a line of clothing, and Elise was the first person that came to mind on helping me bring my ideas to fruition.
l’étoile: Is there any significance behind the name Ikoyi?
Ogbonna: Ikoyi is the name of the wealthiest neighborhood in Lagos, Nigeria. Places like Ikoyi are sort of over-looked in the media, since the continent of Africa is almost always portrayed in demeaning stereotypes, such as: a very sad and poverty/war-stricken place, or as a really big jungle with exotic animals. When it came time to think of a name for the brand Ikoyi was the first thing that I thought of. In terms of architecture, style, and scenery, Ikoyi definitely rivals any place you’d see in the most opulent destinations around the world.
l’étoile: What draws you to fashion?
Ogbonna: I like nice things.
Diebel: Being able to alter your appearance with infinite possibilities and being a resource for people who wish to do just that. Fashion totally freaks me out because I feel like I have so many ideas I never know what to run with, but once I figure it out, I get such a weird high from it, it’s alright I guess.
l’étoile: What are your individual jobs within the creation and production of Ikoyi?
Ogbonna: I am the Creative Director and handle the promotion and visual identity of the brand, and I suppose I am the de facto numbers guy. We both contribute our ideas on what we want the clothes to look like and Elise brings them to fruition in her home studio. Each piece is made by hand Elise so it’s a very insular process.
Diebel: We’ll discuss upcoming designs, I’ll sketch up what I have pictured and send them over, and we’ll refine from there. I pattern, cut, and sew the garments by myself, and then Brad is in charge of pretty much everything else = photos, marketing, etc. I think it balances out well; we’re able to combine forces, each doing what we’re best at.
l’étoile: How do your backgrounds, Brad with photography and Elise with apparel design, affect the aesthetic of the line?
Ogbonna: A lot of my photography utilizes natural light and an abundance of colors. I suppose it’s pretty fitting to the style and aesthetic of the clothing.
Diebel: In my opinion, each of our respective backgrounds helps us to be a better team and produce a better, more attractive product. Since I’m the one making the garments, I know what is physically possible to pattern, sew, make, etc. I also have a better idea of how much a garment costs to make and how much time goes into everything. I’ve pretty much always been big on using prints in my work, so this is perfect.
l’étoile: What does Ikoyi represent?
Brad: I like to say AFRICA and AMERICA in clothing form, because I have a personal and cultural connection to both places, and the clothing serves as an amalgamation of the two cultures.
l’étoile: Why New York instead of LA, Europe or other fashion capitols?
Ogbonna: We both live and work in NYC so there’s an obvious bias for that reason, but I do subscribe to the belief that New York City is indeed the “best city in the world,” but then again it’s all relative. The diversity of NYC and the opportunities that are here are unparalleled, and I’ve been able to support myself thus far doing what I enjoy in one of the most expensive and storied cites in the world.
Diebel: We had both spent time in New York before we graduated college, Brad for a year, me for a summer, and I just knew this was a place I wanted to be. After living in Minnesota my whole life, I needed something different, and New York just seemed like the best choice, the only choice for me to start my new life. There are so many more opportunities for someone in my field than anywhere else, really. I like LA, but I don’t think I would want to live there. I would probably love to live in Europe at some point in my life, but I knew that wasn’t where I wanted to start. No matter where they are, Minnesota, New York or Africa, Brad and Elise manage to blend two cultures into one using clothing as a medium. When asked if they feel like their roots in the state of ten thousand lakes has had any impact on Ikoyi, the two gave a swift no. What is reflected in the clothing is Brad and Elise’s personal style. A mix of cool guy chic and “sophisticated weirdo” as Elise would put it. If you were ever wondering if designers wear their own line, these two do. Now that is Minnesota humble, even if it has nothing to do with Ikoyi.
Find out more about Ikoyi and shop the Spring 2013 collection at ikoyinyc.com.
All photos: Brad Ogbonna, courtesy Ikoyi